By William Engel
“Letter from Masanjia” tells the story of Sun Yi, a Chinese man who spent years detained in a prison camp for taking part in Falun Gong, a spiritual practice outlawed by the Chinese government. In the camp, he and the other detainees were forced to make cheap products to export to the United States. It was here that Sun Yi spied an opportunity; just before a box of products was shipped out, he snuck in a letter beckoning whoever found it to spread the word about the existence of Masanjia and the Chinese government’s egregious ongoing human rights violations. The letter was found by an Oregonian woman named Julie Keith, leading to the creation of the documentary.
The story begins with Keith’s account of her experience finding the letter, posting about it on social media and eventually getting in touch with Sun Yi. Keith’s presence in the documentary is limited, however, as most of the focus is deservedly on Sun Yi and his constant struggle to evade the government’s attempts to suppress him. Through lurid animated segments, the film reenacts the torture that the prison guards put him through, which included being strung up and starved for about a year straight.
Sun Yi himself provides the narration, retelling his experience with a tone of stoicism that demonstrates his inexorable resolve in the face of adversity. In fact, the film also provides the perspective of one of the Masanjia prison guards, who was inspired by Sun Yi’s refusal to give in to the torture.
The emotional center of the documentary is provided by the testimony of Sun Yi’s estranged wife, whose marriage was torn asunder by her husband’s imprisonment and persecution. Her recount of how the experience traumatized her and her lamenting over the future they could have had are a large source of the movie’s pathos, making Sun Yi’s story feel all the more more intimate and emotionally resonant.
The story of “Masanjia” isn’t easy to get through – at times, it’s downright excruciating – but it’s a story you’ll be grateful to have heard, one that aptly demonstrates both the most despicable and the most admirable aspects of the human condition.
Letter from Masanjia
1h 15min | Documentary
Director: Leon Lee
Writers: Caylan Ford, Leon Lee